One of the tougher PR and reputation management aspects of the furor around Indiana’s Religious Freedom Act is the struggle faced by local businesses who want to separate their own views and polices from the interpretation of Governor Pence’s original legislation as homophobic.
Although the state quickly passed a “clarified” bill under pressure last Thursday, the economic impact, amplified by loud social media action from prominent businesses, celebrities, and influentials urging an Indiana boycott, has been swift and harsh. Tourism officials are in full crisis mode, with millions in conference spending threatened. If anyone doubts the potential impact, look no further than Arizona.
Many small and midsize businesses who embrace customers of any and all persuasions are caught in the in the middle, tarred with the brush of bigotry and powerless to do much of anything about it. But some local businesses are showing PR and reputation savvy. Their actions may not be enough to stave off a prolonged boycott (“gaycott?”), but the actions are instructive. They fall roughly into three categories.
Be part of the solution. Nine major Indiana companies sent a letter to the Governor urging the revision that assures the legislation won’t be used to justify discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Others, like Angie’s List CEO Bill Oesterle, have criticized the revised bill as inadequate.
Even better, locally headquartered businesses like Cummins and Eli Lilly are pushing for a statewide antidiscrimination statute. It’s an astute way of trying to avoid the problem by championing the broader issue of equal rights. It may not avoid continued criticism, but it will likely burnish the reputations of those involved and keep them from being targeted by activists.
Get creative. The above moves won’t do much to help the little guy. Some have resorted to hanging signs like “We Serve Everyone.” Convention and visitors association Tourism Indy launched a clever social media comeback by building five-foot concrete letters NDY and inviting residents to complete the word in selfies by becoming a human “I.” The point is summed up by hashtag #IndyWelcomesAll. Nice.
Use humor. When things get ugly, a light touch can be a way of deflecting outrage like the activist anger that threatens to dampen the Indiana economic comeback and depress tourism and economic development for the year or longer. When a local pizza shop became a symbol of the culture war by saying it would refuse to cater a fictional gay wedding, the battle lines were drawn as sharply as pepperoni slices. In response, former “Scrubs” stars (and the original straight “bromance” couple) Zach Braff and Donald Faison recently pledged to make pizza for anyone’s gay wedding.
My feeling is that Indiana will suffer economic consequences unless the bill is modified more dramatically or repealed altogether. In the meantime, PR-smart local businesses might want to jump on the gay pizza bandwagon. Rainbow pie, anyone?